When you get right down to it, Superman is a very simple character. Albeit a simple character with complex symbolism, who means different things to different people, but a simple setup nonetheless. He is essentially a Boy Scout with incredible powers. Conscience plus superpower equals Superman. However, this simple framework is actually a character strength that allows for complex questions to be asked about how someone with such power and such a clear moral compass is forced to react to the compromised and often morally bankrupt world we live in. Superman: Infinite Crisis illustrates how a good writer can emphasis the internal difficulties and moral dilemmas a person with the power of a God can have when trying to live amongst us mortals.
The trade includes the three-part story, Superman, This is Your Life. The first issue takes place during Infinite Crisis, and focuses on the Golden Age Superman from Earth 2 as he battles with the Superman from Earth 1. The Clark Kent of this Earth was the one whose parents died before he left home. He’s the one who became a reporter for the Daily Star, and who fought beside the JSA in World War II. The views of this Superman are unflinchingly clarified by his experiences in the Second World War. There is good and there is evil and the line that divides them is clear; you are either on one side or the other, there are no shades of gray. The Superman from Earth 1, as stiff as he may seem, is actually the one that has compromised his beliefs in the face of the impossible moral conundrums he is pitted against.
As the two Supermen continue their battle, time itself is fractured by the power they unleash. As a result of this damage to the time stream, the next issue is from the perspective of the Golden Age Superman, examining how he would have handled the problems of Earth 1. Earth 1’s Superman is likewise forced to live a life on Earth 2. The Golden Age Superman sees Earth 1 as hopelessly corrupt and refuses to acknowledge the potential for gray areas in moral issues. Rather then be defeated by Doomsday, which is shown to be the moment that Earth 1’s heroes lost their way, the Golden Age Superman survives the epic battle. He then goes on to handle the events of Identity Crisis by condemning Dr. Light to the Phantom Zone. When the JLA is finally tired of his uncompromising authoritarian style, he disbands them and forms a new league with people more willing do follow his lead. He believes that imposing his will on the on the corrupt people of Earth 1 is the only logical recourse in response to their immorality.
As the story continues, the minor differences in the two iconic figures are further highlighted. The Superman from Earth 1 chooses to be an example that will inspire the people of Earth 2 to solve their world’s problems. The Superman from Earth 2 decides to be a leader that will direct the path others should walk. One is, “A Version of Myself from a simplistic world of black and white morality.” The other, “A whimpering version of myself from a corrupt world where morals have been tossed aside like trash.” The Superman from Earth 1 solves all of Earth 2’s problems, but then is unprepared and easily defeated when the Anti-Monitor attacks. The Earth 2 Superman, assumes control of Earth 1, but leads the planet to destruction when his enemies unite against oppressive methods. Both Supermen think that they could have solved the problems of the other planets, but instead condemn both to ruin. This issue concludes with the two continuing their futile battle, the dual narrative reflecting the simplicities and complexities of characters made from the same template, but hopelessly irreconcilable.
This storyline in Superman: Infinite Crisis, is extremely important to the mythology of the character, and the greater history of the DCU. For Superman, it shows how minor alterations to this simple but Olympian figure can lead to massive consequences. The uncompromising Earth 2 Superman, cannot exist in the complex and darker world of Earth 2. The equally moral Earth 1 Superman is unable to succeed is the idealized, but hollow, Earth 2. While the two characters seem identical, it is their response the alterations in the world around them that sends them in completely different directions.
With regards to the DCU, it is an interesting look back at comics since the first Crisis. Earth 1 was the Earth that was saved, and because of that decision comics followed a different route than it would have, had the other been chosen. The choice is reflective of the very debate over what comics should be. Should they be escapist fantasies where one-dimensional good guys battle one-dimensional bad guys in a world where the lines are clearly drawn? Or should they be more complex morality plays where the problems the superheroes cope with are more reflective of the internal questions we as humans have to deal with?
Moreover, anyone can relate to the debate that is manifested by the two Supermen in these stories. Hasn’t everyone in their life come to a crossroads where they must choose whether to be unflinching and steadfast in their beliefs, or compromise in the face of an impossible dilemma? The meaning of the battle of the Supermen is very real, and at times we must all ask ourselves which Superman represents us. Are we from Earth 1 or Earth 2?